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Reporters Committee warns court of espionage law’s potential harm to journalists

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has asked a judge to allow it to file an amicus brief…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has asked a judge to allow it to file an amicus brief in a criminal case against two lobbyists, saying that such a broad application of the espionage statute would have negative consequences for journalism.

“While the government certainly has a legitimate interest in keeping national security information out of the wrong hands, an overly aggressive approach that interferes with the flow of information to the public and its ability to hold its government accountable can undermine the democratic principles we all seek to defend,” the Reporters Committee argued in its motion.

The criminal case, brought in federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria, is part of a broad effort by the Bush Administration’s Justice Department to clamp down on unauthorized disclosures of information that it wants to keep secret. While the World War I era espionage statute has apparently never been used against a journalist, the case against lobbyists Stephen Rosen and Keith Weissman is an indication that federal officials intend to expand the scope of those prosecuted under the law.

Rosen and Weissman, who were working for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), were private individuals who were, according to the indictment, given confidential information from a Pentagon official and sought to publicize it, both by disclosing it to reporters and discussing it with Israeli embassy officials. The Reporters Committee does not take a position as to whether the law can be applied to the two lobbyists, who allegedly disclosed the information to foreign government officials; instead, it asked the court to allow it to address the issue of how the application of this law could affect journalists and the public’s right to know about the workings of its government.